Map showing members and dialogue partners of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation. Image: Wikipedia

On November 15-16, 2021, the 21st Council of Ministers meeting of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) took place in Dhaka. At this meeting, Bangladesh became the president of the organization for the next two years.

Though the IORA is not well known, it has significant potential to create an impact on the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), especially in the context of growing geopolitical and geo-economic significance of the region.

Because of its dynamic nature and expandable scope, the IORA has the potential to promote mutual cooperation and regionalism among the states in this area and may serve as a good forum for small and middle powers.

IORA at a glance

The IORA was formed in 1995 through the efforts of India and South Africa, and it began formally in 1997. Nelson Mandela played a visionary role in promoting its creation.

Gradually the number of members increased, and at present there are 23 members, and 10 dialogue partners including the US, Japan and China in the IORA. It is a dynamic inter-governmental organization and has expandable scope and focus.

The objectives of the organization are to promote liberalization, increase cooperation and strengthen regional development and provide a multilateral forum for the involved states. To achieve this, the organization has prioritizes six sectors and has two areas of focus, namely the “blue economy” and women’s empowerment.

Its scope also includes maritime security, trade and investment, fisheries, tourism, disaster management, and knowledge and technological cooperation. 

However, the scope of this organization is expandable depending on need and changing contexts. Since 2014, the blue economy has emerged as an important area for the organization and since then, various capacity building, action plans and working groups have been formed to create a maritime-focused economy in this region.

As well, the dynamic nature of the organization has the potential to offer the members cooperation in such areas as maritime safety and security, trade and commerce and even in disaster management. Hence the IORA is projecting its potential to serve as the main multilateral body for the IOR states.

Significance of IOR

During the past decade, the geopolitical and geo-economic context has changed dramatically. The IOR has always made significant contributions to the world economy. The region is home to 35% of the world’s population and also accounts for 19% of total gross domestic product.

Moreover, 80% of seaborne trade uses routes through the Indian Ocean. Furthermore, 80% of seaborne oil trade and 100,000 commercial vessels depend on this route every year.

Growing superpower rivalry

With the so-called rise of China in the past decade, and rapid development of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the geopolitical and geo-economic realities of this region are changing quickly.

The formation of the US Indo-Pacific Strategy (IPS) and the revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue comprising the US, India, Japan and Austrlia have brought a new commercial and geopolitical rivalry into this region.

At present, a stalemate between the Quad and China is ongoing. However, because of the significance of this region, other states and entities that have stakes in the IOR, including the European Union, also have formulated their own Indo-Pacific strategies.

As a result, picking sides has become an important aspect for the states affected by this superpower rivalry. However, most of the IOR states are small or middle powers and many rely on balancing policies.

Moreover, for many small states, picking sides is not suitable and they rely on multilateralism as their foreign policies. Hence for these states, under the current context, ensuring security and commerce becomes harder; in this context, a multilateral forum such as the IORA can serve as a better alternative. 

Besides, as most of the stakeholders in the stalemate including the US, Australia, India and China are direct members of the IORA or dialogue partners, the forum can also contribute in arranging dialogues and mitigating skepticism between them.

Moreover, because of such involvement by these states, the IORA can yield mutual benefits for all the parties and can also serve as a ground of non-alignment for states that prefer balancing over siding with one superpower or the other.

Bangladesh perspective

Traditionally, Bangladesh relies on a policy of balancing its foreign affairs. Bangladesh’s foreign policy follows the dictum of “friendship with all and malice towards none.” Bangladesh also promotes multilateralism. In the current context, Bangladesh hasn’t yet picked any sides and is relying on the policy of balancing between the superpowers.

But as an IOR state, Bangladesh also faces recurrent disaster issues. Moreover, it needs cooperation in capacity-building and ensuring security in various aspects including trade and investment, and utilizing its maritime resources. And Bangladesh wants to meet these objectives without picking any sides in the first place.

As a result, a multilateral forum such as the IORA can provide Bangladesh with desired cooperation. However, Bangladesh has already joined the Colombo Security Conclave (CSC), a sub-regional forum.

The IORA’s scope and focus allows Bangladesh to meet its objectives and fulfill national interests. For instance, Bangladesh is now aiming to develop a blue economy, which is a focus area of the IORA.

As well, the forum may facilitate trade and investment for Bangladesh. Furthermore, Bangladesh can also build its capacity in disaster management by utilizing this platform.

And all these Bangladesh can do while staying “soft,” without picking any sides, and through promoting multilateralism in the region. Moreover, holding the presidency of the IORA for the next two years will also contribute to strengthening Bangladesh’s diplomacy, leadership role and national image.

Challenges for IORA

Though the IORA can be viewed as an ideal multilateral organization, there are a few hurdles that hinder its effectiveness. First, the geopolitical rivalry among the great powers undermines the organization. The Quad-China stalemate and the role of their allies hinder the IORA’s impact in the region.

Second, the diversity among the members is also important in decision-making. Among the members, there are countries of almost all scales including small, middle, and large and powerful. As a result, there are different and contradicting interests among them that affect decision-making and negotiations.

And last but not the least, the overlapping scope and focus with the other active organizations reduce members’ attention and funding, which also impacts organizational activities. For instance, in the IOR, the CSC as a sub-regional forum is also working in the field of maritime security.

In the current geopolitical and geo-economic context, the IORA has the potential to serve as an alternative for the states to resort to, especially for the ones that rely on balancing and multilateralism, while for the confronting stakeholders, it can serve as a middle ground.

Moreover, in the long term, the organization can contribute to the prosperity of the whole region by promoting cooperation and sustainable development. But to do so, it must overcome the hurdles it faces and promote regionalism.

For Bangladesh, it not only can provide breathing space but also can bring cooperation and development opportunities.

To sum up, the IORA and its members should look for middle ground between contradicting interests and incorporate both short-term and long-term policies for creating a prosperous Indian Ocean Rim.

MD Mufassir Rashid is an independent researcher and analyst focusing on political economy, migration studies and South Asian studies. He holds a Bachelor of Social Science in international relations from the University of Dhaka. He has completed his Master of Social Science from the same university with specialization in international political economy, and is now preparing for his PhD. He is an occasional contributor to The Diplomat, Modern Diplomacy, and Eurasia Review.